There were dozens of tempting hors d’oeuvres passed around at last Friday night’s Gluten-Free Cooking Spree in New York: crisp tiny pizzas, cheese-filled mini eggplant lasagnas, rich, squid-ink-covered meatballs. The best thing about them: I could eat every one. This never happens, because I have celiac disease, a genetic condition that causes a physical intolerance to gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley.
Ingesting even a dime-sized portion of any of these grains will wreak gastrointestinal havoc in my body for weeks. Regular consumption could lead to everything from anemia and infertility to arthritis and colon cancer. So I usually spend cocktail parties and food-related events staring suspiciously at the canapés, skewers, and toast points — if I choose carelessly, I have to wrap the poisonous breaded item in a napkin and discard it later. Dinners out involve a pre-meal waiter interrogation, or, if I’m feeling lazy, scraping off, and eating around, any unadvertised flour coating. Not a satisfying culinary experience to say the least.
Celiac affects roughly 1 in 133 Americans — nearly three million in all. There is currently no cure, so patients must follow a strict gluten-free diet. Along with being found in obvious items like cookies, pasta, bread, and pastries, gluten is a little-known ingredient in soy sauce, modified food starch, vegetable protein, some salad dressings, energy bars, and beer. For a person with celiac disease, every meal has to be planned — no grabbing a sandwich, burrito, or slice of pizza on the go.
Friday night’s event, held at the Institute of Culinary Education and put on by the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), paired medical experts with seven chefs, including Carrie Levin from Good Enough to Eat, Jehangir Mehta of Graffiti, and Ralph Pagano from TV’s Hell’s Kitchen, in an effort to educate the New York restaurant community and promote understanding of the disease. It is part of a six-city cooking tour that will include Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and San Francisco.
“We wanted to bring the lifestyle together with the science,” says Alice Bast, executive director of the NFCA. CNN anchor Heidi Collins, a celiac spokesperson and the evening’s emcee, echoed Bast, explaining, “By putting top chefs with top doctors, we can show that gluten-free cooking can not only be done safely, it can be done really well.” Standing in front of a banner that read “Gluten: Quarantined at the Door,” guests dined on zesty fish chowder, chive biscuits, pasta primavera, and tilapia tempura; all prepared with alternative flours such as rice and quinoa. But it was Brett Reichler, corporate executive chef at the restaurant group B.R. Guest, who won the evening’s Iron Chef–esque gluten-free cook-off. His crisp yet tender tortilla-crusted free-range chicken stuffed with spinach and Manchego cheese was tangy, creamy, and fresh. It had the night’s 200-plus guests, including me, chasing down seconds. The dish — and the entire night — proved you don’t need wheat to create a delicious meal. And no one had to leave hungry — or with a napkin-wrapped snack in their pocket.
For more information about celiac, upcoming Gluten-Free Sprees, recipes, and cooking tips, go to www.beyondceliac.org.